The best superhero films of all time
UPDATE: the utterly fantastic Captain America: Civil War has been added to our list of the best superhero films of all time – read on to find out more!
Here at TechRadar, we love our superhero movies. When you look over the evolution of the superhero genre, from the first major Hollywood superhero film, Superman, to the multiplex-dominating films of today like Deadpool and the recent Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, it's easy to see just how far comic book movies have come. Superhero movies are not only extremely popular, they're also some of the most technologically-advanced movies of our generation.
In celebration of the genre, we've decided to list the best superhero films of all time. We think these films encapsulate much of what the superhero genre has to offer, from the big budget blockbusters starring well-known characters to the small indie films which take the concept of superheroism and approach it with a unique outlook.
Seen by many as the culmination of the entire superhero movie genre, Marvel's The Avengers brought together several characters from their own franchises to create a team-based mega-franchise. While superhero team-ups have been happening in comic books for decades, The Avengers proved to be first real time that the notion would be properly realised on film, allowing audiences to buy into all of Marvel's movies as an overall cinematic universe. The Avengers went on to become the highest-grossing superhero film ever made, and the fourth highest-grossing film of all time overall, inspiring all of the other major film studios to start coming up with their own cinematic universes. Without The Avengers, we wouldn't have DC Universe movies like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Justice League and Suicide Squad to look forward to.
The Dark Knight
A major turning point for the genre, The Dark Knight saw the concept of a superhero film grow up significantly, with director Christopher Nolan approaching the material like a genuine crime film in the vein of Michael Mann. Gone were the days of cartoonish villains in a fantastical setting – Gotham City finally felt like a real place that was being held under a veil of terror by a genuinely frightening psychopath. Which brings us to Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning performance (yes, this is a superhero movie that received an Academy Award for acting) as The Joker. Easily one of the most memorable performances of the last decade from any movie, the character instantly became one of the greatest villains in cinema history, cementing Ledger's legacy after his untimely death shortly after completing his work on the film. Jared Leto sure has some big shoes to fill when he takes up the role in the upcoming film, Suicide Squad.
It's hard to believe now, but the prospect of an Iron Man movie was initially considered to be far from a sure thing. Iron Man had been unable to get off the ground in Hollywood for a long time, with Tom Cruise at one point attached to play Tony Stark in what would have been a very different take on the character. It would eventually take comedic actor/director Jon Favreau to bring Iron Man to cinematic life, with a fresh and unique approach that would see Tony Stark become the charming and hilarious lothario we know and love today. We can also thank Favreau for the inspired decision to cast Robert Downey Jr, an actor once considered to be box office poison, in the role of a lifetime. Iron Man was an enormous success, officially kicking off the Marvel Cinematic Universe and cementing Downey Jr as one of the highest paid actors of all time. The rest is history.
Guardians of the Galaxy
Leave it to Marvel Studios to take Guardians of the Galaxy, which is one of its most obscure superhero properties, and spin it into box office gold. Director James Gunn infused this space opera with a colorful, punk-rock attitude, making audiences totally buy into (and eventually love) a superhero team consisting of a talking raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and a monosyllabic tree-person (voiced by Vin Diesel). But of all the film's casting choices, it would be Chris Pratt (most famous for his role as the endearing nitwit Andy in Parks and Recreation) that would prove to be the film's biggest asset. Pratt brought an infectious sense of swagger and likeability to the character of Peter Quill (a.k.a Star Lord) that made him an instant star, landing him the lead role in the colossal hit Jurassic World.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
In the same year that brought us Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel Studios also redefined what a superhero movie could be with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This sequel could not be further from its WWII-set predecessor, placing Captain America (Chris Evans) in a modern day setting, entangled in a paranoid spy-thriller plot that would see him re-evaluate his allegiances to S.H.I.E.L.D. and go head-to-head against an old friend. Marvel Studios was clearly pleased with how the film turned out, handing its directors the Russo brothers the keys to its enormous-sounding sequel, Captain America: Civil War, as well as the next two Avengers films.
The importance of Batman Begins cannot be understated, as it is the bat-film that put director Christopher Nolan on the path of creating one of the genre's greatest achievements, The Dark Knight. Nolan did the unthinkable – he rescued Batman from rubber nipple oblivion. A more serious, adult approach, coupled with a great leading man choice in Christian Bale, helped re-establish Batman as the coolest superhero of all time.
One of the greatest superhero movie sequels ever made, Spider-Man 2 took everything audiences loved about the first Spider-Man movie and amped it all up significantly. Director Sam Raimi dialed up his trademark zany energy and delivered a follow-up with more drama, bigger stakes, and incredible action. Spidey's battle with Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) atop a New York subway train showed us how huge and awesome a superhero battle can be, topping anything that occurred in the original film. Easily superior to either of the films from the already abandoned reboot series, Spider-Man 2 is a true classic of the genre.
Even though they'd spent close to a decade trying to get their passion project made, star Ryan Reynolds, director Tim Miller and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick could never have expected Deadpool to achieve the biggest box office opening weekend for a superhero franchise-starter of all-time, easily eclipsing previous title holder, Man of Steel. That it could do so with an audience-limiting R-rating is almost unheard of, and yet it just goes to show that crowds will come if a film's approach is as invigorating as Deadpool's proved to be. Hilarious, violent, sexy and full of fourth wall-breaking, Deadpool is as perfect an adaptation of Marvel's motor-mouthed mutant antihero as we could've ever hoped for.
Pixar's only superhero film to date (a sequel is on the way), The Incredibles is a fantastic movie that makes us wish there were more computer animated entries in the genre (Big Hero 6 is also wonderful). Directed by Brad Bird (who would go on to make Ratatouille and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), this breezy flick features a loveable family of super-powered people who are struggling to keep up appearances as a normal family, while keeping their powers under wraps. Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) is drawn back to his superheroing ways, eventually dragging his whole family back with him. Feeling like James Bond meets Fantastic Four, The Incredibles is... well, incredible.
Before he made Guardians of the Galaxy, director James Gunn made the low-budget indie superhero flick, Super. Playing like a darkly-funny comic book take on Taxi Driver, Super is about a sad sack loser (played by Rainn Wilson) who turns to crime-fighting after his wife (played by Liv Tyler) leaves him for a total scumbag (played by Kevin Bacon). He develops a superhero persona known as the Crimson Bolt, who runs around violently cracking criminals (and jerks in general) on the head with a pipe wrench while yelling his catchphrase, "Shut up, crime!" Similar in theme to the film Kick-Ass (only way darker), Super is recommended viewing for anyone who loves superhero films.
Possibly M. Night Shyamalan's best film, Unbreakable sees David Dunn (Bruce Willis) slowly come to the realisation that he was born to be an invincible superhero. After coming away from an enormous train derailment as the sole survivor (with nary a scratch on him), David is contacted out of the blue by comic book aficionado Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), whose wild theory about David and his powers sets him on a path of discovery. Expertly crafted with a cracker of an ending, Unbreakable is the kind of superhero movie we want to see more of.
Kick-Ass is a superhero film that asks the following question: what would it actually be like to dress up in a costume and fight crime? That's exactly what high school kid Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) attempts to do – only to get stabbed on his first attempt. Okay, so maybe he'll need a bit of help from Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and his pint-sized, potty-mouthed daughter, Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) – a pair of bad-ass vigilante killers on a quest to rid the city of its mob infestation. Hilariously profane and wickedly violent, Kick-Ass really does kick ass.
Long thought to be impossible to adapt for the screen, Alan Moore's classic superhero graphic novel Watchmen has nevertheless inspired its share of attempts by many different directors, including Terry Gilliam and Paul Greengrass. However, it was Zack Snyder, fresh from his successful adaptation of Frank Miller's 300 comic book, who would eventually get the movie made. While his adaptation is seen by many as a surface-level reading of Moore's groundbreaking book, it is perhaps the best live-action version of Watchmen we could have hoped for, outside of a television miniseries. Its powerful imagery and terrific performances make it a one-of-a-kind superhero movie experience worth savouring. Oh, and it has the best opening credits of any comic book film we can think of.
Director Bryan Singer is arguably responsible for bringing superhero films back into fashion with the first X-Men movie, so you can imagine how much pressure was on him to not screw up its sequel. Thankfully, X-Men 2 wiped the floor with its already excellent predecessor, greatly expanding its scope, drama and action. The film's opening sequence, which features a mind-controlled Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) teleporting around the Oval Office and attacking the President of the United States is a particular highlight. Too bad its sequel, X-Men: The Last Stand, sucked royally.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Though it was recently rebooted by producer Michael Bay, the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie reigns supreme (like a pizza). Closer in tone to the comic that inspired it than the cartoon that made these characters famous, the film has a dark (and somewhat dirty) New York tone that was absent from its subsequent sequels. The film retained the source material's edge while keeping still remaining funny and endlessly quotable. The dynamic between the four turtles was handled perfectly, and Elias Koteas' portrayal of the hockey mask-wearing vigilante Casey Jones turned the character into one of film's great unsung badasses. Add to that an incredible soundtrack featuring the likes of M.C. Hammer, Technotronic and Partners in Kryme, and what you have is one of the most radical comic book movies of all time. Cowabunga!
Tim Burton took the world by storm with his hugely successful Batman film, which was the first film adaptation of the character since the swinging sixties era of Adam West. Back in 1989, the film acted as a revitalisation of a flagging genre, rescuing superhero movies from the stagnation caused by the abysmal Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, made only two years before. Burton applied his trademark dark and twisted visuals to the property, changing the way people view Batman forever (no, not the Val Kilmer movie), while Jack Nicholson's scary take on The Joker made an entire generation of children afraid of hand buzzers and chattering teeth.
The superhero film that started it all, Richard Donner's Superman made the world believe that a man could fly. Christopher Reeve's magnificent performance and presence set the standard for all for future versions of the Man of Steel, and Margot Kidder played a wonderfully spunky Lois Lane which gave Reeve's clumsy take on Clark Kent a lot to play off of. Fans will also want to check out Superman II, though the less said about Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, the better.
Captain America: Civil War
Following up the stellar Captain America: The Winter Soldier was surely no easy task for Joe and Anthony Russo, but the dynamic director duo pulls off the incredible feat of actually topping it by bringing in some of Marvel's heaviest hitters. Inspired by Mark Millar's Civil War comic run (but not actually an adaptation), the latest Captain America film sees Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) caught on opposite sides of an argument there is no right answer for. We can see where both heroes are coming from, which makes their coming to blows all the more tragic to witness.
Each side is not alone, though, with alliances formed that will see other superhero friends square off against each other. Though Captain America: Civil War is easily the heaviest Marvel film to date in terms of the emotions it conjures and the themes it confronts, that doesn't stop it from being funny, joyous and immensely entertaining. New additions Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) are revelations in their roles, especially Holland, who effortlessly rescues everybody's favourite web slinger from his last miserable incarnation. If a Captain America film can be this great and epic, imagine what the Russos will do with Avengers: Infinity War 1 and 2.
Stephen primarily covers phones and entertainment for TechRadar's Australian team, and has written professionally across the categories of tech, film, television and gaming in both print and online for over a decade. He's obsessed with smartphones, televisions, consoles and gaming PCs, and has a deep-seated desire to consume all forms of media at the highest quality possible.
He's also likely to talk a person’s ear off at the mere mention of Android, cats, retro sneaker releases, travelling and physical media, such as vinyl and boutique Blu-ray releases. Right now, he's most excited about QD-OLED technology, The Batman and Hellblade 2: Senua's Saga.